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Bar Talk: Think Drink, Too

Posted on  | February 1, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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Owen Thomson, Washington, D.C.

While we hear much about the food from chef José Andrés at restaurants spanning The Bazaar in LA, China Poblano in Las Vegas and Zaytinya on his home turf of DC, the cocktails are equally impressive thanks to ThinkFoodGroup’s roving barman, Owen Thomson.

THE BEVERAGE NETWORK: ThinkFoodGroup decided to close D.C.’s beloved Café Atlantico last year and morph it into America Eats Tavern, an exciting pop-up concept. Tell us about the bar program.

Owen Thomson: The cocktail program here focuses on snapshots of America’s past, offering the most classical renditions we can for the drinks. Most people have heard of a Mint Julep or a Sazerac for instance, but it is unlikely that the majority of our guests have ever had one executed in the way the drinks were intended. We also get to play around with some drinks that people are less familiar with, like Benjamin Franklin’s personal recipe for milk punch or the old New England field worker’s drink, the Switchel.

TBN: Before your current post, you introduced a successful drink menu to Bourbon, in the Adams Morgan neighborhood. Why do you think it was able to thrive?

OT: We had a great time defying everyone’s preconceived notions of what a bar should be in Adams Morgan. Everyone would tell us nobody wants anything but rail vodka and light beer. Myself and the other bartenders thought we could do better so we started pulling in everything that we liked to drink and anything that seemed interesting, and just had fun playing. Our guests really began to appreciate it. I’ll always be proud of what we put together there: a regular bar where you could sit and drink your tallboy of PBR next to someone else drinking a swizzle or fizz.

TBN: You are responsible for the drink programs at all of José’s restaurants. How do you establish a unique experience for each one while maintaining consistency and a unified feel?

OT: I always try to instill in our bartenders that they should be proud of what they do and welcome every guest as if they were walking into their own home. After that it’s imperative that we are very knowledgeable about the products we carry and the drinks we make so that once we’ve welcomed our guest we can start directing their experience. People go out to bars in order to relax and have a good time; nothing makes that easier than a hospitable bartender.

TBN: What is your process for creating the drinks?

OT: I do a lot of R&D in the lead up to an opening and we try to start with a strong drink menu that has a little something for everyone and really fits in with the concept. The other big factor is regular tastings with José, which make sure that the program really reflects his vision of the property. Once we get open it’s a whole new ballgame. I love to work with all the bartenders and help them put together their own ideas for drinks and get them in front of José as well. Helping to take ownership of the menu just further solidifies their ownership of the bar and the atmosphere that they create.

TBN: What propelled you to launch the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild?

OT: We used to hold a regular tasting group at Bourbon on Monday nights. We were always reading about the great things bartenders were doing in NYC and San Francisco and thought, Why not here? We saw a few other independent guilds popping up in Washington and Oregon and we figured it would be a great way to grow a community and focus some attention on D.C.. Ten of us sat down one afternoon in 2008 and threw some money in a hat so we could buy a website and we planned out the first annual Rickey Month to showcase local D.C. bartenders making our own versions of a quintessentially D.C. cocktail. Since then we have grown to 60 or so members and have built a really strong community here.


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